Prolific German filmmaker Werner Herzog returns to UK cinemas this week with his latest effort Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life (2011), a Tale of Death. Revisiting Herzogian existentialist themes such as the fragility of life and the inevitability of our own mortality, Into the Abyss focuses upon the American capital punishment system, tracing two convicts both accused of committing a series of brutal murders in Texas in 2001. Playing out in a similar vein to Truman Capote’s true crime novel In Cold Blood, Herzog expertly interviews a pool of local inhabitants – all connected the crime in some way – including convicted killers Michael Perry and Jason Burkett.
Rather than investigating the men’s charge of triple murder in a traditional chronological manner, Herzog divides his film into six distinct chapters, each resting on an aspect of human mortality. Consistently suited when addressing Perry and Burkett face-to-face (according the director, this was to show respect for the two men as human beings), Herzog wrestles with the moral implications of the US capital punishment system, despite his own personal aversions. Predictably, this has lead to criticism of Into the Abyss from some quarters suggesting that the German director treads too softly with the felons, particularly baby-faced Death Row murderer Perry – such are the treacheries of presenting a balanced case. More problematic are the film’s unfocused slumps, Herzog’s subjects taking point.
At times, this informal style of interviewing works wonders – the continuing discussions with Perry and also the grieving brother of one of his victims are as compelling as any seen over the last few years, but sadly the consistency isn’t quite as high as in the director’s finest factual works. For Herzog fans, Into the Abyss is a more than satisfactory addition to the director’s oeuvre, bringing together a number of his favoured themes in order to explore the sociopolitical ‘hot potato’ that is capital punishment. However, one can’t help but feel that the human world is perhaps not entirely the Bavarian’s preferred habitat – excluding a brief introduction when a state official claims to have seen something akin to a God-like presence in the eyes of a startled squirrel, his natural world sadly plays little part.